What’s today’s story?
Two weeks ago the staff and consultants for the CRC highway mega-project made their third presentation at a hearing of the CRC legislative oversight committee. Unlike previous hearings, this one was electric – and made front-page news in The Oregonian. CRC consultants and staff presented the oversight committee with a new plan – one to cut back the CRC by $650 million, eliminating expanded connections to the ports.
CRC consultant Patricia McCaig: “We aren’t tone deaf. We understand this project makes you nervous... we’ve clearly been directed by the Governor, the public and conversations with you to go for a smaller project. That’s the reality of these times.”
Smaller, of course, is relative. It would still be the most expensive project in the region’s history, costing billions of dollars. It would still fail to solve the traffic problems, add congestion to North Portland, and tear down the bridge that has 55 years of life in it.
The next day the story changed.
Governor Kitzhaber’s spokesperson backed away from the idea, saying “There’s no discussion on eliminating anything.” And Paula Hammond, Director of the Washington Department of Transportation, sent a memo to Washington legislators saying the plan presented to Oregon legislators wasn’t the plan.
The promise of a special discounted price on the CRC - to be responsive to legislative concerns - was just smoke and mirrors. Even if ODOT shows a smaller initial price tag, they still plan to build the whole project, and bill accordingly.
And the fictitious sticker price conceals a more important question, still unanswered six years into the planning: who will pay?
The mega-project's financing plan is based on highly uncertain federal money, unpassable state gas tax increases, and questionable tolling income. At the hearing CRC officials dodged the question of who would be responsible for the likely huge cost overruns - by my count five times.
The $300 million or $450 million CRC is asking for is just the "E-Z down payment" - the real bill will come later - after the legislature signs on the dotted line.
CRC backers want it both ways: a shine of relative affordability, an appearance of responsiveness, while still planning to build the whole mega-project, five miles of highway expansion with huge interchanges.
WSDOT's Hammond also claims Washington is forging ahead with plans for a new transportation revenue package that includes Washington’s $450 million share. That contradicts the budget proposal out of the Governor’s office.
Having multiple stories is something the CRC has gotten good at. The project uses two different traffic projections in its FEIS. They have a constantly shifting schedule of building while claiming they're on schedule. They claim they’ve saved the same money multiple times.
Until the Columbia River Crossing project gets its plan straight – until it has any idea about how to find the funding for the project or is clear on what will be built – we have the responsibility to stop funding the fantasy.
The legislature needs to step in, and do so immediately.
Between now and the 2013 session, the high-priced CRC consultants and staff will spend another $10 million or so from ODOT's budget. That’s ten million dollars that could be going to key maintenance needs across the state, creating construction jobs.
We simply don’t have the time or money to waste on ever-changing stories based on fantasy funding.